Iowa and New Hampshire? Look to Oklahoma Instead

The late great muckraking journalist I. F. Stone, one of my few heroes, once called the Washington Post the most exciting newspaper in America because, he said, "You never know where you'll find a page one story."

His trenchant criticism of the newspaper's judgment of what's important and what's not was borne out again Sunday when the Post relegated what may be the most important political story of the day to page 4, while focusing on the over-blown, over-covered and over-hyped Iowa caucuses.

I'm talking about David Broder's scoop about a meeting that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will hold next week at the University of Oklahoma with a dozen top Democrats and Republicans who will, in Broder's words, "join him in challenging the major party contenders to spell out their plans for forming a 'government of national unity' to end the gridlock in Washington.'"

Broder, the 78-year-old undisputed dean of America's political journalists for whom the 2008 campaign is probably his last hurrah, reported that a bipartisan group of political leaders will gather in Norman, Oklahoma, on Jan. 7 to put the nominees of both parties on notice that if they don't promise to build an administration that seeks national consensus "they will be prepared to back Bloomberg or another third party candidate.

The meeting was convened by University of Oklahoma President David Boren, the Democratic former senator and governor, and includes such luminaries as Democratic former Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Gary Hart of Colorado and Chuck Robb of Virginia; Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and former GOP Senators Bill Brock of Tennessee, John Danforth of Missouri, and GOP former New Jersey Gov. and Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman.

Others who indicated they will attend include former Defense Secretary and GOP Sen. Bill Cohen of Maine, former Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham of Florida, former GOP Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa (now director of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Public Affairs at Harvard), and Susan Eisenhower.

That's one hell of a story, and my first thought on reading it was why didn't I report it?

Fact is that I knew about it more than a month ago when Boren told me and former Republican Senator David Durenberger of Minnesota all about it. I'd invited Durenberger to speak at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, where I was teaching the fall semester, and we spent an hour with Boren, who came to the Senate the same year as Durenberger and served with him on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But I foolishly agreed to Boren's statement that our conversation was off-the-record, a fatal mistake for any journalist who ought to immediately excuse himself or herself and say, "If I can't use it, why bother to tell me?" (I did the time-honored dodge for those who are told "this is off the record" by telling a reporter at The Hill, where I am editor-at-large, that he should call Nunn or Cohen or Hagel or one of the other people invited to the meeting and get the story from them without telling them where they got the tip. Sadly, he didn't follow up.)

Anyway, it's a story that could upset the all the applecarts of the 2008 election. Bloomberg, a former Democrat elected as a Republican and now an independent, has said he has no plans to run for president, but that doesn't mean he won't. In fact, I think he may very well if no candidate of the two major parties appears to be taking off. As a multi-billionaire, he could easily self-finance his candidacy, even if he starts late.

Boren told Broder -- and me and Durenberger in November -- that the Jan. 7 confab hopes to draft a statement on such issues as the need to "rebuild and reconfigure our military forces," address the threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and restore U.S. credibility around the world.

"Our hope is that the candidates will respond with their own specific ideas about how to pull the country together, not just aim at getting out their own polarized base," Boren told Broder. "But we will have a couple of months before the nominees will be known,a dn we can judge in that time what their response will be." Boren said he was announcing the meeting ahead of the Jan. 5 Iowa caucuses "because we don't want anyone to think this was a response to any particular candidate or candidates."

Boren, who has raised over a billion dollars for his University since becoming president in 1994, added, "Electing a president based solely on the platform or promises of one party is not adequate for this time. Until you end the polarization and have bipartisanship, nothing else matters, because one party simply will block the other from acting."

The comments of two former senators who spoke to Broder were worth listening to

One was Danforth, who said that although he remains a Republican, he isn't enthusiastic about any of his party's candidates. "My party is appealing to a real meanness, and an irresponsible sense of machismo in foreign policy. " I hope it will be less extreme, but I'm an American before I'm a Republican.

The other was Nunn, who described Blooomberg as "an enormously capable man" but said he hasn't decided whom he will support. "Most of us hope to shape the Republican or Democratic sides' response, but who knows where this is going to go? I think the country's at a tipping point, and it's going to take a lot more understanding by the electorate for anybody to be able to lead."

As I repeatedly told my students when they asked me about the 2008 election, always remember what Teddy White, author of the Making of the President books, once told me, which was that political journalists should always report what is happening and never report what they think will happen.,

Nevertheless, what I think will happen at the University of Oklahoma on Jan. 7 may very well change the course of the 2008 election and American history as well.